(First, thanks to all of you who've commented on the blog via this website or via hotmail. It's great to get your comments, so thanks for keeping in touch.)
I said goodbye to Dar Es Salaam with a fine Italian meal of roasted garlic, freshly baked bread, minestrone, and a glass of potent grappa, compliments of the chef. I didn't sleep much the night before I was to join the camping tour. The group I'd meet was heading down from the famous Ngorongoro Crater, where zoo-like animals live in a large fishbowl existence. These animals never leave their crater; they mate and dine with eachother their entire lives. Just like the island of Manhattan.
The following morning, at dawn, I raced through my breakfast of bran and coffee. Before hopping in a taxi to the place where I'd meet my tour group, the Tanzanian hotel manager bade me farewell, apologizing for the transgressions of the wayward youth who'd made off with my phone, "Sister, you are very lucky! They took my phone from me. And they beat me in the face to get it." I waited the requisite five seconds or so to see if she was joking. She wasn't. With that, I left Dar Es Salaam for (literally) greener pastures.
If you've ever fought in one of the world wars that gripped the first few decades of the 20th century, you'll be familiar with the bus that was hired to transport ten of us for three weeks from Tanzania to South Africa. This bus rattles, shakes, occasionally groans, and has only ever heard of or seen the concept of "shocks" if it passed a shock shop somewhere along the road. In short, it's one of Dante's rings of hell. Especially when the roads are bumpy. And since we ain't traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike, I can assure you that sitting on this bus for ten hours a day is trying for anyone's constitution.
''Everyone, this is Patricia, or Patty," said George, the South African guide. "Patty, this is everyone." Grimacing at his choice of nomenclature, I greeted everyone, who from then on, rather oddly apparently decided I looked like a "Trish" and called me by my name, without any prompting on my part.
The weather went from hot and sticky Dar to cool and humid countryside. Nature was sprawling and chaotic: leafy, green, verdant, abundant. Rows of corn grew alongside a shop selling cement bricks. A woman in turban and sashes of color bathed her naked boy while schoolchildren in uniform shouted "Hello, how are you doing?" It's customary in most parts of Africa to inquire about someone's health as well as their family before asking whatever it is you really want to ask, such as "I have a deadly snake bite." There is no such thing as an emergency here, only if you don't ask about someone's family.
The last remnants of villages gave way to pure countryside, not without a few laughs, though. In the midst of probably a dozen red La-Z Boy chairs lined up outside a bar, two idle men sat sipping something in a bottle (it was only 9am, I could hardly imagine what they were drinking was alcoholic). They sat in front of a sign that said "The Waste Time Bar". Indeed. Ironically, they relaxed comfortably in their La-Z Boys as two women about their age went about attempting to sell the fruits they'd collected by carrying their wares on their heads in impossibly huge heaps.
"Has anyone here gotten ill yet?" I asked.
"No!" and "Yes!" I heard in unison. Apparently the guide leader and one of the members of the group were in total disagreement. "Oh," said our guide, "I didn't know everyone was sick." That's right, every person in our group had diarrhea. I put down the tomato I had prepared to put on my sandwich of greasy salami and dried bread. I even washed my hands after touching said tomato. I made the mistake of making light of the diarrhea versus vomiting conundrum (which would you rather have?) and got angry glares from several members of the group. "It's painful cramping diarrhea," I was corrected after cheerfully offering my preference of it over vomiting.
Ten hours of driving later and we arrived at a tiny campsite in south-central Tanzania. The camp was actually the base for safari camps, so the accommodations were quite nice, if you had booked accommodation. In order to save money, three members of the group had asked to camp for the entire three weeks. I did not make that request. I spent my first night in the African bush in a honeymoon suite, complete with jacuzzi, king-sized bed, and two personal guards. I was feeling pretty smug until I tried to draw a bath in the jacuzzi and the water ran red.
"Jambo, sir, why do you carry that spear?" I asked my personal guard, dressed in a red flannel sash and thick ankle beads why he was carrying a spear, a DIRTY spear. "Dirty", as in "been used". He laughed and continued walking in front of me, leading to my group's campfire where we were all meeting to make dinner. Just then, I saw half a dozen English people tucking into a low doorway, remarking upon their hunger. "Restaurant!" thought I, and tucked myself into the doorway. "Have you a booking?" asked the Englishwoman who seemed to be running the show. "If you'd like to make a booking for dinner tonight, we have space. We are serving a three-course meal of freshly-made soup, grilled meats, and tea and cake."
"Oh," I said, "I am with the camping group. We are cooking for ourselves tonight." In my mind's eye, I envisioned boiled salami, boiled tomatoes, and stale bread renamed "croutons".
"I am afraid on my first night with this group that I cannot break rank and order my own dinner," I said to the English manager, although I was literally salivating to do so. I sauntered to the group, pulled up a chair and actually ate quite well. Our local cook, nicknamed "Moose" had made beef chili and spaghetti. After dinner, we all sprinted in pouring rain to the campsite's bar, where we ate homemade brownies and drank whiskey in ketchup packets. In case your mind was wandering when you read that last description, I'd like you to picture it: whiskey in ketchup packets (tear open and drink!) accompanied by freshly-baked brownies, all in the African bush. That's what traveling is all about.
Stay tuned tomorrow where even the guide gets diarrhea, our caravan crosses the border into Malawi, and we set up camp in Chitimba Village, where the giant mambo snake lives and has been recently spotted in PAIRS...